PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — It took Rutgers nine Big East games last season to earn its first conference victory.
For first-year Scarlet Knights coach Mike Rice, the wait was even longer.
A self-admitted basketball lifer, Rice had to wait 19 years and jump from seven different schools before landing the Rutgers job last spring.
He called the chance to coach in the Big East “a dream” at the time, but that was nothing compared to his feelings following Rutgers’ 85-72 win over Providence on Saturday night.
“It’s unbelievable,” Rice said after the Scarlet Knights snapped a three-game losing streak with their most lopsided Big East win since beating DePaul by 19 two years ago. “You look at this league and you don’t know where the wins are coming. It’s a fight, scratching and clawing every single night, so I’m very excited to get this first one done away with.”
Jonathan Mitchell had 21 points and 10 rebounds and Austin Johnson scored a season-high 16 off the bench as the Scarlet Knights (10-5, 1-2) snapped a seven-game losing streak to Providence (11-6, 0-4) dating to the 2004-05 season.
Gilvydas Biruta added 13 points and Dane Miller had 12 for Rutgers, which outscored Providence 52-37 in the second half.
Marshon Brooks scored 29 to lead the Friars, who shot 25 percent (7 for 28) in the second half en route to their fourth straight loss.
James Beatty hit consecutive 3-pointers to ignite an 8-0 run to start the second half, and Rutgers never trailed in the final 18 minutes.
“We lost three games in a row, so we wanted to get that bad taste out our mouths,” said Beatty, who finished with eight points and four assists. “We wanted to show we could compete in this league, and every night you’re going to have a fight on your hands when you play Rutgers. Tonight we did that.”
With Providence making just two field goals, the Scarlet Knights outscored the Friars 19-10 in the first 8 minutes of the second half.
“I told the team that I was really disappointed after this game, but the good news is that I haven’t been disappointed after games or practices this year,” Providence coach Keno Davis said. “In the second half, they kind of picked us apart inside. We need to work on our penetration defense, as well as our interior defense, if we’re going to get any better.”
Biruta, who shot 6 of 7 from the field, and Johnson, who made six of his nine shots, helped Rutgers dominate inside, outscoring Providence 46-26 in the paint and holding a 41-35 rebounding edge.
“Everybody’s been telling me I need to shoot the ball more, I need to be more aggressive,” said Johnson, who also helped Rutgers outscore Providence 28-12 in bench points. “I feel like them being so spread out in the zone helped me get into spots where I could be successful.”
The win marked the first time since 2006-07 that Rutgers opened Big East play with a win in its first three league games. The Scarlet Knights opened Big East play with six straight defeats in 2007-08 and eight consecutive losses the past two seasons.
“Getting that first win in the Big East, especially when you lose your first two, it’s big,” Rice said. “I think this team is improving, so I’m excited about that. I think we can be in a lot of different games, and hopefully pull some out.”